The New York rock band The Velvet Underground were functionally together for less than a decade, yet during their brief, brilliant life their unique droning sound and discordant harmonies blazed a trail for future punk and experimental artists. Despite the youth of the band members and those who knew them during the mid to late 1960s, many passed away well before Todd Haynes started shooting the interviews for his documentary in 2018. This piece, also titled The Velvet Underground, seems to risk hagiography from the start: how does one engage with a legend of rock and roll when half of the personal memories and experiences are funneled through those who remain?
The answer is brilliantly and beautifully, if imperfectly. The Velvet Underground brings viewers back to the band’s heyday and its members’ tumultuous youths through judicious narration and archival footage. Todd Haynes brings his clear, deep enthusiasm for The Velvet Underground and the trailblazing music of the 1960s and 1970s to the fore in his documentary (his first on such musicians, despite his semi-fictionalised depictions of rock stars in Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There). The film employs an almost constant split screen approach to the historic images and recordings, with one half of the screen showing rehearsals, performances, and messy songwriting sessions while the other stays on a tight close-up of a band members’ youthful, unspeaking face (it is a boon that the Velvet Underground came to maturity at Andy Warhol’s “Factory,” where the pop artist recorded the minutia of their lives).
In the present day, talking heads of the living band members, collaborators, and family members (Lou Reed’s sister makes a notable early appearance) gives a more mature, sober look at those years of fame and creation. Maureen “Mo” Tucker gives particularly poignant testimony to the pressures of beauty and looks emphasised at The Factory, contextualising a struggle she and Nico faced without their male colleagues’ support.
On this note, The Velvet Underground shies away from the darker, fractious elements of the band’s creative practice. Stories of studio spats, creative differences, and near-breakups abound — at many times, it seems impressive the band lasted as long as it did. Even reflections on Reed’s “darkness” are left on the surface, as if they are accepted as legend and fact rather than interrogated. The Velvet Underground is thus a portrait of artists as young, tedious men — brilliant, unquestionably, but exhausting to be around.
The Velvet Underground seeks to engage newcomers to the band as well as die-hard aficionados, and its wide scope may be its greatest achievement and stumbling block. Haynes brilliantly evokes a creative world where R’n’B and Wagner operas were equally influential but often takes key milestones, such as Warhol’s firing, for granted. He walks this fine line of introducing new converts and giving old fans new views with perhaps as much success as possible, and any sprawl is more than accommodated for by his clear love for his subjects. Best enjoyed as an atmospheric immersion, The Velvet Underground brings beautiful visuals and poignant reflections to an untidy tale.
The Velvet Underground opens at Film Forum New York on October 13 and will be available to stream on AppleTV+ from October 15
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie